Patience

Peace is a process which takes time, a great deal of time, and patience.

I believe it was Adam Curle who said that the process of reconciliation after a violent conflict takes at least as many years as the build up to the fighting. According to that reckoning, reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis will take well over 100 years. And the process of reconciliation cannot really begin properly until there is a just settlement of the conflict, i.e. an end to the occupation of Palestine.

Those of us who seek peace between Palestinians and Israelis – and that surely includes most Palestinians and Israelis themselves – need a great deal of patience. It is hardly surprising that young Palestinians are losing their patience as Israel continues to demolish Palestinian homes and takes the provocative step of closing the Al-Aqsa mosque for a day. Palestinian youths throwing stones and Molotov cocktails are met with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas. More fatalities are likely.

There is an urgent need for new negotiations which will lead to a just and lasting solution to the conflict. The international community needs to insist on an immediate end to the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law. And there should be an embargo on all arms sales to Israel. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of that at the moment.

However, more and more countries, now including Sweden, are recognising Palestine as a state. The British government should follow suit, especially after the recent vote in parliament calling for recognition of the state of Palestine. If you live in Britain, you could check out how your MP voted and, according to how they voted, thank them or politely point out the error of their ways.

Quakers here in Brussels are collecting money for kindergartens in Gaza which have been supported by Norwegian Friends for many years. In Britain and Ireland, Quaker Peace & Social Witness, based in London, administers the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) on behalf of the World Council of Churches.

There are things which we can do as individual Quakers and as Quaker meetings. But ultimately we have no control over events in the Middle East. We can only do what we can to sow the seeds of peace and justice and wait for them to grow and bear fruit.

Much patience is called for. Working nonviolently for peace and justice requires a great deal of patience. Indeed, in Latin America peace activists, instead of using the term “nonviolence” or “nonviolent action”, talk about “relentless persistence”.

Patience and relentless persistence are required in personal relationships as well. We need to persist in loving one another, both our nearest and dearest and those who seem to be working against us, until we discover, as Thomas Merton did, that “it is the reality of personal relationships which saves everything”.

This statement is the conclusion of Thomas Merton’s “Letter to a young activist”, which I quoted in my blogpost on “Joy”, published on 21 June. As a footnote to that blogpost I also gave the text of a letter from Isaac Penington to Friends (Quakers) in Amersham, written in 1667. In that letter he tells us: “Watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all.

I’m reminded of a dream which I had quite a few years ago now, at a time when I was suffering from depression. In my dream, I was in a meadow at the bottom of the grounds of a large stately home or castle somewhere in Scotland. I found myself sinking into a bog. I was floundering and beginning to panic. A woman appeared and tried to pull me out, but that didn’t work and she was in danger of being pulled into the bog herself. I then heard someone telling me to stretch my legs down until I felt firm ground beneath my feet. So I stretched my legs down and, lo-and-behold, found firm ground. I was then able to walk out of the bog.

God provides the firm foundation, on which we can stand. No-one else can pull us out of the snare. “The Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all.”

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Love

“Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.”

This quotation from William Penn appears at the beginning of a chapter of “Quaker Faith and Practice: The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain.”

Learning to love is most definitely a question of learning by doing. I have found reading helpful, e.g. “The Road Less Travelled” by Scott Peck, but it is no substitute for actually loving another person.

Love is not just having a nice warm feeling towards someone or wanting to be with them. Love is about being sensitive to another person’s needs and desires and going out of our way to help them to be happy. And we can only begin to do that by paying attention to our own spiritual growth. We are not going to help anyone else become any happier, if we ourselves are miserable for much of the time.

But it’s not much good pretending to be cheerful. We need to find the deep and abiding joy which comes with doing what love requires of us, whatever the circumstances and however much it might cost us.

One of my all-time favourite quotes is, of course, by Thomas Merton. If I’ve quoted it before, it’s worth quoting again:

“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering, by our very contact with each other, because this love is a resetting of a body of broken bones.”

If you want to love without suffering, don’t even bother to try. I have often heard these lines by William Blake quoted in Quaker meetings for worship:

It is right it should be so;

Man was made for Joy & Woe;

And when this we rightly know

Thro’ the World we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,

A Clothing for the Soul divine;

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine.

Suffering is a fact of life. Love, joy and peace are not to be found through avoiding suffering. They are the gifts of a loving God to anyone who chooses to live life to the full and drink the cup that is flowing over.

When we learn to love, we become the agents of God who becomes human when humans become godlike. Jesus is the supreme example. When Christ dwells within us and we “live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war” (George Fox), then we too will become patterns and examples and will “come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” (George Fox).

It may seem that God causes suffering. Maybe He/She does. I don’t know. What I do know, is that God loves each and every one of us. A good few years ago, when I was taking part in a group therapy session, the message that was coming through to me was: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” In the knowledge that we are loved, we become capable of loving others, so that we can tell them “I love you, because I love you, because I love you.” And now and then we catch a glimpse of the God within them, even though they may not yet see this themselves.

How does God communicate with us?

There are two assumptions behind this question: firstly, that there actually is a being whom it is appropriate to call God; and, secondly, that this God communicates with us in some way.

My experience of life in this world only makes sense to me, if I recognise the existence of a being, whom I choose to refer to as God. I’m sure my knowledge and understanding of God are very limited.  I feel like one of the blind men who are each given part of an elephant to hold and are then asked to describe the elephant. One man is holding a leg, another is holding an ear and another is holding the elephant’s tail. They each have very different images of an elephant.

Each one of us has somewhat different experiences of God and consequently we develop different ideas as to what God is like. I’m convinced that God is a loving being, a creative force, the source of life, in whom we live and move and have our being. The power of God is everywhere. In that sense God is omnipotent.

Although God is at work in mysterious ways at all times and in all places, I don’t think He/She is always in control. I don’t think we can blame God for wars, violence, torture, injustice, or forest fires, nor even for natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

So the power of God – the Holy Spirit, if you like – is at work everywhere, influencing events, but without being in control. One way in which this loving God influences events is by inspiring and empowering individuals and faith communities to act in accordance with His/Her loving purposes. God’s Spirit can guide us, if we listen out for His/Her guidance.

So the question as to how God communicates with us is an important one.

I can tell you how I think God communicates with me. I go to Quaker meetings for worship, because thoughts and ideas sometimes come to me which seem to be inspired by God. And – more often, I guess – thoughts and ideas come to other people in the meeting, which they share with the rest of us through spoken ministry.

In our meetings for worship for business and in meetings for clearness, we seek God’s guidance in relation to specific matters of business or concern. When a meeting arrives at a decision which is in harmony with the loving purposes of God, the clerk is able, with the help of the meeting, to record the sense of the meeting in a written minute.

I joked the other day that I was thankful that God speaks British – rather than American – English. But on the whole I don’t think God communicates with me in words. Thoughts, images, and ideas come to me, for which I then have to find the words. One possible exception to this, is when the right words come to me in a moment of inspiration when I’m writing a song.

From time to time God communicates with me through dreams. Two dreams during the past week or so have prompted me to write this blogpost. In the first dream I found myself in Lee-on-the-Solent, the small coastal town in which I grew up. In the distance I could see a large white bird with black markings soaring over the rooftops. The bird flew slowly in a very large circle around me and my companion. It circled round us two or three times, gradually coming closer until it was over the nearby recreation ground. It wasn’t just a big bird. It was HUGE. And it no longer had any black markings. It was all white. It was far too big to be some sort of eagle, let alone a dove. It was too plump to be a stork. As I awoke from my dream I understood it to be a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

The following night I dreamt that I was having a shower in a large room which had become flooded. The water was up to my knees or thereabouts. I could see that the neighbouring room, which I think was a kitchen, was becoming flooded as well due to the drains being blocked. I interpreted the water as another symbol of the Holy Spirit, now trying to flow through me, but not being able to flow out properly. It seemed to me that God was encouraging me to start writing for my blog again.

So God communicates with me in meetings for worship and through dreams. He/She also communicates through the words and actions of other people. At breakfast time each morning I read from a book of daily readings by Henri Nouwen. These short passages often “speak to my condition”, as the writings of Thomas Merton have done in the past (and still do). But I would like now to quote from a passage by C. S. Lewis, which was sent to me by a friend just a few days ago: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in ourconsciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse adeaf world.”

If we were better able to listen to the “still, small voice”, and to follow the promptings of love and truth in our hearts, perhaps there would be less pain in the world. One friend of mine has spoken of hearing “a voice which isn’t a voice”, which I think is a good way of putting it.

In thinking about how God communicates with us, I’m led to recall a number of Old Testament stories: Joseph interpreting the dreams of his fellow prisoners and of the Pharaoh; Moses kneeling in awe at the sight of a burning bush; Elijah finding God not in earthquake or storm, but as a quiet whispering sound, a “still, small voice”.

I do believe that God continues to communicate with us in similar ways today. And the underlying message always seems to be the same: “I love you. Love one another.”

The light within

I begin each day by reading from “Peacemaking Day by Day”, a book of daily readings published by Pax Christi in 1990. After nearly 20 years of use, my little book has fallen apart into two unequal halves, but it is still useable. The reading for today, 16 November, is from the Tales of the Hasidim:

A young rabbi said to the master, “You know, when I study and when I join others in great feasts, I feel a great sense of light and life. But the minute it’s over it’s all gone; everything dies in me.”
The old rabbi replied: “It is just this feeling that happens when a person walks through the woods at night, when the breeze is cool and the scent in the air is delicious. If another joins the traveller with a lantern, they can walk safely and joyfully together. But if they come to a crossroads and the one with the lantern departs then the first must grope her way alone unless she carries her light within her.”

We Quakers are convinced that we each – everyone, not just Quakers – carry an “Inward Light”, a divine spark, within us.

I’m currently reading “Dimensions of Prayer” by Douglas Steere, a Quaker who was Professor of Philosophy at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. In a passage which I read this morning, he quotes Bede Griffiths:

“It is only in prayer that we can communicate with one another at the deepest level of our being. Behind all words and gestures, behind all thoughts and feelings, there is an inner centre of prayer where we can meet one another in the presence of God.”

I’m reminded of the meaning of the Hindu greeting, “Namaste”, explained by Ram Dass in “Grist for the Mill”:

“In India when we meet and part we often say, ‘Namaste’, which means: I honour the place in you where the entire universe resides; I honour the place in you of love, of light, of truth, of peace. I honour the place within you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us …. ‘Namaste’.”

How often are we able to honour each other in this way? Very rarely, I fear, at least in my experience. It is something that we all need to learn to do much more often: to see and honour the place of light and love and truth within ourselves and within the people we meet. We need to honour not only our “brothers” and “sisters” within our own church or faith community. We need also to honour our “brothers” and “sisters” in other faith communities and, perhaps especially, those who are not in a faith community.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, recognised a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, as his “brother” and wrote a short essay entitled “Nhat Hanh is my brother.” This was at the height of the Vietnam War and Thomas Merton was appealing to Americans to listen to the young Buddhist monk from Vietnam. Americans needed to recognise Vietnamese people as their brothers and sisters.

Now we who profess to be Christians need to recognise Jews as our brothers and sisters. And Jews need to recognise Muslims as their brothers and sisters. And Muslims need to recognise atheists as their brothers and sisters. In fact we all need to recognise each other as brothers and sisters. Then peace will break out and it won’t matter whether there is a two-state solution or a one-state solution or two states within a state in Palestine/Israel.

My copy of “Peacemaking Day by Day” has fallen apart at August 22, where there is another story from Tales of the Hasidim:

An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.
“Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
“Then when is it?” the pupils demanded.
“It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

A time and place for prayer

I don’t pretend to be a saint. But one of my favourite quotes – by Thomas Merton, of course – is this:

“The saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else. It gives them a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning others. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. We become saints not by conviction that we are better than sinners but by the realization that we are one of them, and that all together we need the mercy of God.”

I am a sinner just the same as everyone else. But I’m not miserable. I’m a happy sinner! No, I’m not happy about my sins. I’m glad that I’m able to enjoy the mercy of God.

Thomas Merton imagines God saying: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with my mercy…. Have you had sight of me, Jonas, my child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.”

This land, Palestine, also known as Israel, and the people here, both Palestinians and Israelis, are desperately in need of the mercy of God.

Let us all show mercy towards each other. This land and the people here need compassion, mercy and pardon, not judgement or condemnation.

Who amongst us is in a position to judge others? Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.”

And yet we need to exercise judgement. We need to name the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis for what it is: oppression. We need to name the separation of Palestinians and Israelis into overcrowded towns on the one hand and spacious communities on the other as apartheid. Maybe it is accurate to refer to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) as “Israeli Occupation Forces” (IOF). Maybe it is accurate to describe the “separation barrier” as an “Apartheid Wall”.

In order to exercise judgement and then to take creative loving action in accordance with that judgement, we need to pray. We need to open our hearts to God’s guidance. We need the Spirit of love to inspire us.

There are demonic forces at work. What can be more demonic than the desire to kill someone? Such demonic forces, Jesus tells us, can only be overcome by prayer and fasting.

So I need to take time to pray. And maybe five times per day isn’t enough. And maybe a time of fasting wouldn’t go amiss.

I’ve just begun reading “Dimensions of Prayer” by Douglas Steere, who was Professor of Philosophy at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He writes: “The living God is the field of force into which we enter in prayer.” But he complains: “How little there is in us of the silent and radiant strength in which the secret works of God really take place!”

I really do need to spend more time in prayer. Here in this place. Now at this time.

Sundays

On Sunday afternoon ten days ago I set off across the city on a bicycle. I had to negotiate my way around mothers and fathers with pushchairs casually walking down the middle of the road and past cyclists riding towards me on the wrong side of the street. Both cyclists and pedestrians were ignoring red traffic lights, children on skateboards and young men on roller-blades were all over the road, and young children were being allowed to wander about in the middle of the street. “What on earth was going on?” you may well ask.

This was the annual Car Free Sunday in Brussels. Private cars were banned from the entire city inside the ring road. A few buses and trams were running. And there were quite a few taxis around, but they had to go slowly because of the fleets of cyclists and hordes of pedestrians. I spent several hours cycling around the south of the city and spotted only a handful of cars which didn’t appear to be taxis. It was a pleasure to be able to cycle around without having to concentrate on the traffic all the time. And what a pleasure to hear the babble of human voices instead of the noise of traffic.

I should have counted the number of different languages which I heard – all the main European languages and probably a few others besides. Brussels is certainly a multilingual and multicultural city. I’m getting to experience this on Sundays especially. This last Sunday I joined a “Meet Up” group of photographers on a visit to an exhibition in a former abbey in Stavelot in the Ardennes. The group was organised by a German and included people of various ages from Ireland, the Ukraine and several countries in between. The lingua franca was of course English. They were a friendly bunch of people.

The exhibition was a display of photographs by the well-known French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. There were also a couple of short slide shows about his life and work. All the photographs were black and white – very striking. Several of the images have stayed in my mind: a girl skipping through a patch of sunlight on a mediaeval street; two bathers lying alongside each other in a lake with two ducks beyond them; boys playing amongst the ruins of a town during the Spanish civil war; three women washing clothes in a river somewhere in Yugoslavia.

Next Sunday there will be a neighbourhood fair here in Square Ambiorix, which is in the European Quarter, not far from the institutions of the European Union. There will be stalls representing a variety of cultures, no doubt. So next Sunday promises to be another special day.

Not that we Quakers regard Sundays as being any more special than any other day. We need to draw strength from the Source of our being every day of the week. And we need to seek the guidance of God’s spirit of love every day wherever we happen to be.

Then, drawing strength from the Source and following God’s guidance, we may become patterns and examples in all countries, places, islands and nations, wherever we happen to be, to paraphrase the words of George Fox, who goes on to say “then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”.

Some time ago I discovered a quotation attributed to Robert Benson: “All of the places of our lives are sanctuaries; some of them just happen to have steeples. And all of the people in our lives are saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most will never have feast days named for them.” This resonates with my conviction that every place on earth is in some way sacred and that there is indeed “that of God” in everyone, which in a way makes everyone a saint.

So, bearing in mind that all of the people that we live with are saints, here is one of my favourite quotations from Thomas Merton: “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering, by our very contact with each other, because this love is a resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.”